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Unsung heroes: Dispatchers serve as community's lifeline

Rain Smith • May 1, 2013 at 7:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — In moments of crisis they’re the calming voice on the other end of the line, channeling an air of stability and order to the panicked.

Simultaneously and seamlessly they act as the eyes and ears of the proverbial cavalry, relaying not only the basic ins and outs of the emergency at hand, but also background on the area, household or individual: vicious dog, history of domestic abuse, prior threats toward officers, weapons in the home.

And, occasionally, central dispatchers just have to be the exemplification of patience.

“There are some people you hear from on a daily basis,” said Sullivan County dispatcher Jessica Manis. “Still, you have to take them all as a serious emergency. There’s nobody that I question.”

Dispatchers are the vital and sometimes overlooked lifeline between a community and those who have sworn to serve and protect it. Each of the three dispatchers working a Sullivan County shift sit surrounded by a wall of five monitors.

Quickly and concisely they click between maps, call logs, radio channels and crime records, keeping emergency responders en route and informed.

“They really are the unsung heroes,” says Leslie Earhart, public information officer for the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office. “While they’re talking to a frantic victim they may also have the officer checking in, and the phone ringing. They’re the ultimate multitaskers.”

On Jan. 19, when an afternoon snowstorm snarled traffic and downed power lines throughout the region, Sullivan County dispatchers answered 547 calls. Key to a dispatcher’s juggling of responsibilities is keeping both themselves and the callers calm — without using the actual C-word.

“Sometimes it’s kind of a struggle to get them to calm down,” said Manis. “You don’t want to say, ‘Calm down, slow down, be quiet.’ That’s kind of like giving them orders. You say, ‘Take a deep breath. Slow down for me, please.’ ”

From fender benders to illness, neighborhood feuds to acts of violence, the 170 or so calls Sullivan County dispatchers field each day are a microcosm of the human condition. Some calls or complaints are petty, some scary.

Others are just sad: a drowning, a teen contemplating suicide, an off-duty officer killed while riding his motorcycle on a Saturday afternoon.

“You have to turn it off when you leave (work),” said Manis. “If you don’t it’ll affect your personal life, and then you bring that to work and it affects the job. You have to turn the switch off.”

Occasionally dispatchers do receive some token or expression of thanks. During 911 Dispatcher Appreciation Week in mid-April, a vase of flowers was delivered. Sometimes an officer will pop in to discuss a case a dispatcher helped with, bringing them up to date on how events played out once the 911 call was disconnected.

Or, as in a recent incident when Manis talked a man through performing CPR on his wife, a caller himself dials again once the trauma has passed.

“He said, ‘I don’t know you, but I want to thank you for what you do,’ ” recalls Manis.

“It’s good knowing that I’m there to help someone, even though they don’t see me.”

Sullivan County central dispatch has recently made two upgrades aimed at assisting both the public and emergency responders.

The SCSO and Sullivan County Emergency Communications District are now part of Tennessee’s Next Generation 911 network. Converting from the antiquated copper-wire technology to the latest in digital communications, Earhart says the NG911 will increase the reliability of the 911 system.

With the new digital network, if one 911 center is knocked out of service a center from another location will be able to pick up the calls. This function is expected to result in saving both time and lives, making for a more responsive system in the case of disaster.

Also, Sullivan County and Kingsport residents who use cell phones can now register to get emergency alert notifications. To sign up, visit https://kingsportsullivantn.onthealert.com .

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